Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Card #82: Bob Welch

Who Can It Be Now?
Robert Lynn Welch was born on November 3, 1956, in Detroit , Michigan.  Welch grew up in Hazel Park, Michigan, north of Detroit, the son of an airplane factory worker.  He was drafted by the Cubs in the 14th Round of the 1974 June Draft directly out of high school, but chose instead to attend college at Eastern Michigan University. While at EMU, he and future Padres pitcher Bob Owchinko led the team to its only two College World Series appearances to date in 1975 and 1976. The 1976 team made it to the final but lost 7-1 to Ron Hassey's Arizona Wildcats.

After the 1977 season, Welch was drafted 20th overall in the first round out of EMU in the loaded 1977 June Draft.  The Dodgers pushed Welch immediately to Double-A San Antonio in the Texas League, and Welch did not disappoint.  While he gave up a lot of hits, he had excellent control -- 17 walks in 71 innings for 2.2 BB/9, he struck out hitters -- 56 Ks for a 7.1 K/9, and he controlled home runs (just 3, 0.4 HR/9).  

Thus, despite an ERA that, on its surface, was a less-than stellar 4.44 (league ERA: 4.2o; team ERA: 4.40), the Dodgers moved Welch to Triple-A Albuquerque in 1978.  There, he saw his three-true-outcome numbers slide slightly, as one would expect with the bump upward in talent levels, but his hits allowed plummeted downward by 2.5 H/9.  In other words, Welch saw a regression to the mean there in his favor.

By mid-June, the Dodgers needed pitching and called up Welch. His first appearance came on June 20 against the Houston Astros in relief of Tommy John.  His next appearance came the next day in extra innings and resulted in his first win.  The next appearance after that was on June 24; Welch was credited with his first save against the Reds.  His first major league start took place in the second game of a doubleheader against the Reds 6 days later; it too resulted in a win.  In fact, it took until his 6th appearance against the Astros for Welch to give up a run.

By the end of that 1978 season, Tommy LaSorda began to trust the young right-hander.  He trusted him so much that Welch pitched in four games in the postseason for the Dodgers -- three of which were in the World Series.  Everything seemed to be coming easily for Welch. One news story after Welch's excellent appearance against the Phillies in game 1 of the NLCS quoted Don Sutton as suspecting that Welch sometimes thought he was still pitching for Eastern Michigan.

It was the 1978 World Series, though, where Welch appeared to come of age.  Indeed, one of the two events in his career for which Welch is remembered today is striking out Reggie Jackson at the end of game 2 of the World Series to save the 4-3 game and allow the Dodgers to go to New York up two games to zero:

Welch served as a swingman for the Dodgers again in 1979, and the stress and strain of not having a defined role took its toll on Welch.  He suffered from arm problems that year.  His lack of good results -- and probably the games where he had good results -- led him to drink heavily.  As the Washington Post stated recently, Welch "drank in the clubhouse, had alcohol-induced blackouts and challenged opposing players to fights."  These issues led team officials and teammates to confront Welch about his drinking, and, as a result, Welch spent 36 days in an alcohol treatment facility in Arizona.

That decision probably allowed Welch to have a career, in all likelihood.  The next season, Welch was named to the All-Star team for the first of two times in his career, though he was charged with giving up the only two runs that the NL surrendered in a 4-2 victory

His career with the Dodgers ended after the 1987 season.  The Dodgers decided to make radical changes to their pitching staff in the wake of a very disappointing 73-89 season.  So, they traded Welch and Matt Young to the Oakland Athletics and Jack Savage to the New York Mets.  In return, the Dodgers received Alfredo Griffin, Jay Howell, and Jesse Orosco. The A's also sent Kevin Tapani and Wally Whitehurst to the Mets as part of the trade.

The move to the American League appeared to rejuvenate Welch in many respects.  He was a dependable starting pitcher by this point of his career at the age of 31, and he stayed healthy until 1992. In Oakland, or rather, San Francisco during the 1989 World Series, Welch gained a second post-season claim to fame.  Whether you are old enough to remember it or whether you have only read about it, you know one thing about that World Series: 

On the night of the earthquake, Welch was the scheduled starter for the A's.  He never did appear in that series.

The very next season, Welch rode tremendous run support and decent pitching to a 27-win season and a Cy Young Award that WAR says was entirely undeserved (Welch's WAR: 3.0; Roger Clemens's WAR: 10.6).  But, shiny things and loud win totals distracted the BBWAA at that point 11 times out of 10, so the flashy 27-6 record and a 2.95 ERA (FIP: 4.19) got the kudos.

Welch finished out his career in Oakland in 1994.  When the strike hit in early August, it must have seemed merciful to Welch since it put an end to a nightmare season in which Welch finished with a 3-6 record and a 7.08 ERA (FIP: 5.66) driven by Welch's inability to throw strikes consistently and by the fact that the ball was getting hit when he did throw strikes (79 H, 10 HR allowed in 68.2 innings).

At his retirement, Welch finished as a two-time World Series winner, a two-time All-Star, and a Cy Yount Award recipient.  

Welch passed away on June 9, 2014, at the age of 57 after suffering a heart attack.

Mustache Check: Nope.  Nothing.

The World According to Garp
During the 1980 season and offseason, Welch and New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey (who co-wrote Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner's Daughter) collaborated to write the book, Five O'Clock Comes Early: A Young Man's Battle with Alcoholism. Vecsey and Welch updated or their publisher re-released the book in 1991 after Welch's Cy Young Award under the title, Five O'Clock Comes Early: A Cy Young Award-Winner Recounts His Greatest Victory.  

One book reviewer in 1982 talked about the book in glowing terms but warned fans that, "[t]he avid baseball, and/or Dodger fan, will find that there is very little baseball in the book, but the baseball connections are always there in one way or another. . . . this book is the autobiography of an alcoholic who happens to be a big league player, and not the other way around."

Family Ties
Bob's son Riley Welch played baseball at the University of Hawaii.  He then hooked on with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization for five rookie league appearances in 2012.  As best I can tell it at this point, that was the end of Riley's professional career.

A Few Minutes With Tony L.
My memories from 1982 of Bob Welch are tainted by his alcoholism.  That was the year that everyone made a big deal about the issue, and it was the year that his book came out after the season (and after the Dodgers had won the World Series in 1981).  Being 10 years old, I still recall my less-than-kind friend Eric calling him "Bob Belch" and older people making jokes that the type of Welch's Grape Juice that Bob liked was the type that had "aged" a bit. 

And yes, those jokes made me laugh.  I never said I was a saint.

After Welch retired, he went into coaching.  He served as a coach on the major-league level for just one season, but it was a good one.  He was the pitching coach for the 2001 World Series Champion Arizona Diamondbacks, who beat the New York Yankees in that series.  He later served as an instructor in the Dodgers and A's organizations.

An interesting long-form story on SB Nation came out at the time of Welch's death in June. Writer Rachel Toor met Welch by happenstance in Missoula, Montana, when Welch was working with the Dodgers team there nine years ago, in 2005.  By that point, Welch was divorced, and the two struck up a friendship and relationship.  

From the story, we learn that Welch was not well read but enjoyed learning new words, that he loved fly fishing, stayed in good shape, and was genuinely interested in people.  He also did not like to sign autographs, though he had just gotten paid by one of the baseball card companies to sign a thousand cards.  Finally, that story also mentioned that Welch had built a friendship with Sandy Koufax. Koufax helped Welch with his curveball. 

As was the case for Charlie Lea, Welch left this planet too soon.

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